WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines for billions of people is difficult and relies on having lots of glass and other raw materials, pill based vaccines could literally be a magic “bullet.”
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First there was COVID-19, and the world went into lockdown, then there were the first vaccines, and the world fought over them and their distribution as vaccine programs like the EU’s fell into shambles. Part of this was because of the perishability of the vaccines that were being made as well as the fact that some of them had to be stored at ultra-low temperatures in order not to spoil, and part of this was because shortages of raw materials, in everything from the sand to make the viles, to the raw ingredients to make the vaccines themselves, were in short supply. But what if you could just manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine pill and just post it to everyone?
Throughout the last year, like most of us, I’ve been watching almost anything and everything related to COVID, and making enough vaccines for everyone and then distributing them all was always going to be a major hurdle is helping us all get back to the “new normal.”
However, as new universal COVID vaccine technologies emerge, and as other types of bleeding edge vaccines, like inhale-able ones and even gene-hacking ones, get trialled in the labs, it’s still hard to beat the simplicity and scalability offered by pills.
This week an Israeli company announced they’ve produced an oral COVID vaccine, and found that pigs produce the desired antibodies after taking it. Oramed Pharmaceuticals says that the innovation could “revolutionise coronavirus inoculation, saving lives by speeding up the process.”
“If people can swallow the planned vaccine pill at home instead of visiting a clinic, vaccine drives can be sped up significantly,” said the company’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Miriam Kidron.
Oramed has created a single-dose oral version of a prospective vaccine made by India-based Premas Biotech, and Kidron said she is “very excited” that it may be able to “help end the pandemic.” She hopes to start Phase I trials soon, and said the vaccine could pass regulation and be ready for use within six months – long before the global vaccination programs will have all been completed.
Kidron’s team administered the liquid from inside the new pill to pigs near the central city of Rehovot. The animals responded by producing antibodies in the quantities expected post-inoculation: Immunoglobulin G (IgG), the most common antibody in blood and bodily fluids that protects against viral infections, and Immunoglobulin A (IgA), which defends the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts against infection.
Kidron told The Times of Israel on Thursday from her Jerusalem office: “This oral vaccine could would allow us to vaccinate much quicker and much more easily. Just imagine that you don’t need to go to a clinic. The pill could even arrive in your mailbox, and you could take it in your own home.”
Kidron said that as well as taking the pressure off clinics, her oral vaccine, which can be stored at room temperature, could eliminate the logistical challenges posed by several of the existing vaccines — including the Pfizer shots used in Israel — which require storage at very cold temperatures.
In some parts of the world, fear of needles is also a major hurdle to vaccination campaigns, and one African country has already made contact expressing interest in vaccine pills for this reason, Kidron said.
Her son Nadav Kidron, the company’s CEO, noted that doctors expect people to top up COVID-19 vaccines, and said the pill vaccine could prove to be a game-changer.
“While ease of administration is critical today to accelerate inoculation rates an oral vaccine could become even more valuable in the likely case that a COVID-19 vaccine may be required annually or biannually like the standard flu shot,” she said.
Oramed is using an “oral protein delivery platform” that it developed for its oral insulin candidate, which is in final stage tests and could soon become the first product of its kind in the world.
Kidron developed the technology behind the vaccine’s oral dosing mechanism at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, and has been exploring various uses for it for the last few years in Oramed. The Nobel laureate and Israel Prize-winning biochemist Avram Hershko is one of her company’s scientific advisers.
The oral vaccine is a modification of Premas’ protein-based VLP, or Virus-Like Particle, vaccine which was originally designed as an injected shot and is still awaiting approval. The Premas shot creates triple protection against the SARS CoV-2 virus spike, membrane, and envelope targets.
Oramed and Premas hope to bring the product to market together branded as Oravax, and have formed a new company, Oravax Medical, in order to do so. Dr. Prabuddha Kundu, managing director of Premas, called the project “an excellent example of a true collaboration which can rapidly advance into late-stage clinical trials.”